Building trust on virtual or remote teams

Building trust on virtual or remote teams

virtual team: staff at desk and on screenAs our workplaces change and more employees work remotely, how do we help their teams excel? How do we help them build the trust they need to perform at their best and to hold each other accountable if they aren’t?

Trust doesn’t happen naturally. We probably all feel like we’re trustworthy, but we aren’t always sure of others. And there might not be much time for everyone on a team to prove themselves. So how can we encourage trust? How can we help build high-performing, high-trust organizations? How can we purposefully encourage trust-building as HR professionals, as managers, as leaders, and as team members?

Foster collaborationShare

We all learn about trust and sharing as children. If a child won’t share, they won’t be chosen as a playmate. So how can we build sharing into teams to promote trust?

Shared expectations

We all make judgements and we know that others make judgements. It’s a lot easier to except this fact when we know how we’ll be judged. Managers might make their expectations clear, but team members also need to do this and reach agreement on team norms. Common issues that need to be addressed:

  • How will we communicate questions about the project?
  • How will we alert others if we can’t complete a task or there is a delay?
  • How will we communicate if there’s a crisis?
  • What will be held confidential on our team?
  • Is it OK to brag or show excitement about something we’ve just accomplished?
  • How will we address time zone differences?
  • How will we show our commitment to our project?
  • How will we hold each other accountable?
  • How will we offer feedback to each other?
  • How will team members who work from the office keep those outside the office in the loop of general office news?

Personality tests can make it easier to discuss some of these issues. For example, it makes it easier for the team to understand that when Chad gives a one-word reply that’s just his style, but when Charlie does it, it might mean he’s upset, feeling rushed or pressured. It can make it easier to understand that Charlene isn’t dragging her feet because she’s being passive-aggressive, but she’s probably worried about the accuracy of her work and is simply running another check. Charlotte isn’t wasting time sharing a photo from her vacation, but is trying to bridge the gap of time spent apart and maintain a social connection with everyone.

It’s important to onboard new team members by reviewing these “rules of engagement” the team has agreed upon, and to re-negotiate them in light of new members. It’s often helpful to bring in an outside facilitator or someone from HR to assist with these discussions as an “outsider” may see what the team might be blind to. They can also help amplify the new person’s voice if necessary.

Shared stories

The team I’m on gets together regularly to share food. It’s a social event I think all cultures enjoy. It’s a time we just naturally use to share stories. It’s an easily arranged experience to share together and an opportunity to talk about something other than work, or about work but in an informal setting. It also creates new stories around our just-shared experience.

We also use technology to share both business and personal updates. We learned from our Five Behaviors Team Development program just how important sharing personal stories can be to building trust. Stories make it easy for us to find our commonalities and arouse our curiosity about each other. Stories engage us with the story-teller. So we have added personal check-ins along with our project-based ones.

Don’t ignore the power of personal connections.

Regular and predictable times & places to share

Communication needs to be regularly scheduled. It’s so easy to not want to bother someone with a phone call or text, or decide to wait until you have more to report. It’s also easy to become untethered to the group without regular communication. If no one is talking with you about the project you’re working on, your commitment to it will suffer. There are numerous tools available to assist teams to stay in contact and to collaborate across distance. Take the time to find ones that work for your team.

Invest in any technology or technology training necessary to keep your team connecting and collaborating.

Trust between managers and employeesLeadership

It’s important that teams know where final authority lies. Is it fluid throughout the project, based on who is most knowledgeable about each step or deliverable on the project? Is there an outside sponsor of your team who has ultimate responsibility and authority? Is leadership part of the team or outside the team? When, where and why will the leader be involved? Leaders can make it easier to trust them by helping the team understand the leader’s role on the team.

Leaders can take other specific steps to promote trust. In addition to monitoring team projects, they can offer mentorship and help the team clear internal hurdles. Leaders should check in with employees rather than check up on them, providing information, guidance, feedback, and support. They can also demonstrate to the team how they are an important part of the organization’s overall goals and mission. They can give the team enough autonomy that the team can act as a unit and arrange opportunities for the team to meet in person or in their own virtual space. They can remind the team that time spent building or restoring trust is time well spent.

Leaders can reward the team as a team. They can create mechanisms for sharing the team’s work and insights through other areas of the organization.

Acknowledge the awkward

Some of the conversations held about remote projects feel awkward and forced, and that’s OK. It might seem like you’re wasting time going over assumptions about how and when to communicate. It might feel rude to ask someone publicly why a task hasn’t been completed. It might seem unnatural to directly state that you were hurt by a curt response to your email. You might feel vulnerable saying you won’t return phone calls or texts during the time you set aside for a medical treatment. But the team will benefit from this type of clarity.

Since remote teams don’t have the added information about someone that comes from being in the same room with them, communication needs to be even more precise. People need to be better about asking for clarification, assuming the best intent from others, and verifying assumptions. If we share an office, I can tell when you’re not feeling well and that I should invite you into a collaboration space tomorrow. If I’m working remotely, I have to rely on you to tell me that this is not a good time for you and that you do want to collaborate with me later.

Trust is built through vulnerability and vulnerability can be a little unsettling. Knowing that you trust me to react professionally to difficult feedback or to keep confidential a personal detail, makes me feel worthy of trust and more likely to reward you with the same level of trust. Expressions of vulnerability are proof that a group of people are truly a working team.

Hire right

Some people will not perform well remotely. Either they aren’t committed enough, skilled enough, or they simply don’t enjoy working without others around. So it’s important that those we ask to work from a distance are those who are interested and can do it successfully.

Great communication skills is the number one ability a new remote team member should have. It’s important that they can understand written and oral instructions, write concise yet complete emails, ask relevant questions, write a good synopsis, and make sense over video or audio channels. Pre-employment tests like PXT Select™ can assist in judging one’s level of communication skills. Some managers like to conduct phone or video interviews or provide a quick assignment to help them evaluate communication skills.

Knowing how personality tests are sometimes used incorrectly in hiring, I must remind readers that we should not assume that one personality style will be a better remote team member than another style. Introverts are not going to be better at working remotely than extraverts just because they don’t need as much external stimuli. Each personality style might need to stretch themselves and work on new skills.

Onboard quickly

We’re more likely to give someone the benefit of doubt when we first meet them or after we’ve learned to trust them. Sometimes we’ll offer trust based on authority, but that won’t last long. So make use of this initial good will and build upon it. Promote the sense of “being in the same boat” and how the success of the team will reflect back on each member.

Team leaders and managers should ensure that all team members understand the team goals and how each of them can use their unique skills to contribute.


Coaches, HR, and even other team members can help facilitate good communication and difficult conversations, thereby building and modeling trust. They can acknowledge that working together can have its difficult moments and that the team is worth working through those moments.


By Kristeen Bullwinkle
Originally published on

1 Comment

  1. Julia Kane 3 years ago

    Thank you for this article! We are building a remote team now, so some of these tips are really relevant to us. I’d like to add that speaking about trust some team building activities can help in building a remote team. We use them from time to time and found out lots of new facts about our workers.

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